18th May 2022 Read time: 3 minutes

Digital technology and work

Heather Taylor, Policy analyst at the Work Foundation at Lancaster University, looks at the impact of digital technology on our working and personal lives - from sleep patterns to higher levels of anxiety.

She says: "For many of us, when we finish working we don't fully disconnect from the stresses of the work day, with two-thirds of UK workers regularly participating in communications outside of work hours.

The pandemic led to a rapid increase in take-up of remote and hybrid working, transforming our working lives for better or worse. Prior to the pandemic, approximately 6% of people across the UK worked exclusively remotely. This increased to 31% during the first national lockdown and has remained high throughout 2021 and into 2022.

During this time, employers and workers have invested in the physical infrastructure and the skills needed to maintain productivity levels while working remotely, making it likely that remote working is here to stay post-Covid. A Work Foundation survey of employees who worked remotely during the pandemic found that close to nine in 10 employees don’t want to return to pre-Covid working patterns. On average, they want to work remotely for up to 3 days per week.

Increased access to remote working is positively impacting the lives of many, with reductions in the cost of commuting and having more time available to spend with loved ones. However, for some it also has changed the way we view digital boundaries between our professional and personal lives. It has intensified the need to be responsive and connected beyond standard working hours, during evenings, weekends and holidays.

An ‘always on’ working culture can be a major trigger and accelerator for both mental and physical ill health. Research has shown that people who responded to work communications after 9pm had a worse quality of sleep and were less engaged the next day. Furthermore, staff may experience anxiety about work pressures even if they don’t check emails in off-hours. There is also evidence to suggest that the mere expectation of being in contact 24/7 is enough to increase strain for employees and their families. Indeed, we are already seeing negative health impacts of pandemic remote working play out, with recent polling from Prospect finding that 35% of remote workers say their work-related mental health has got worse during the pandemic, 42% of which saying this is at least partly a result of inability to switch off from work.

With calls for new working patterns and more extensive flexible working arrangements from MPs, campaigners and workers, we are likely to see a more complex set of arrangements for teams, within employers and between organisations. Whilst digital technologies can help create flexibility they can also add pressures around new forms of digital presenteeism. Managed well, this can lead to greater engagement, inclusion, and productivity. Managed poorly it could create challenges around wellbeing, inequality and discrimination.

An established evidence base shows higher levels of employee wellbeing and increased productivity is good for business. Employers taking an interest in employee health is a potent driver of workforce trust, and improving levels of wellbeing has been shown to be associated with more sustained levels of engagement and performance.

How can you help?

The Work Foundation and Prospect have worked with employers to develop four key principles to help organisation’s help their workers disengage outside working hours:

1) Develop a purpose and values-driven organisational strategy, informed by staff involvement

Your organisation’s values and ambitions should form the starting point for an approach to digital disconnection. The employers we spoke to highlighted the importance of employee consultation when making decisions in their organisations. This is positive; however, it is crucial that discussions about working patterns and locations includes digital disconnection.

2) Focus on building management capabilities within your organisation

Managers will be critical to the successful implementation of any digital disconnection strategy, as a result it is important that they are properly supported, trained in managing conflict and empowered to set expectations within their team.

3) Experiment and engage with staff to find an approach that works

There will likely be a need to experiment with different approaches to disconnection over time. To enable this iterative approach, employees need to feel psychologically safe, meaning that they feel comfortable taking risks and trying out new things, and need to believe that their opinion is valued.

4) Reinforce short-term practical steps with longer-term cultural change

Instead of being a standalone initiative, digital disconnection should be one policy within a much broader package aimed at enhancing employee wellbeing. This could include reviewing workloads and job design, improving holiday and leave policies, offering a range of flexible working options to improve work-life balance, and facilitating the development of mentoring programmes.

Ultimately, employers need to take a proactive approach in their response - this is a complex issue that won’t resolve itself."